I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked: “What is a product manager, and how do I become one?”
I’m always fascinated by this question, because the person who’s asking is already interested in product management, even though they have no idea what it is.
That interest makes sense. Product managers are amongst the highest-compensated, most well-respected professions in the world today, even though they’re among the least well-understood.
In business schools around the world, MBA students have set their sights on product management as their dream jobs. Colleges are starting to create new majors and programs focused solely on product management due to high demand.
Part of the challenge with describing what a product manager does is that the role of product manager is inherently poorly-defined.
What is a Product Manager?
A product manager connects business strategy, design knowledge, and customer needs in order to develop a product that is relevant, feasible, and valuable. PMs are focused on optimizing a product to achieve the business goals and user necessities while maximizing return on investment.
The product manager manages all of the white space around the product. Think of the product manager as connective tissue - they tackle everything that falls outside of the bounds of any of the three core groups.
Because every product has a different constellation of customers, business, and developers, that every product manager is inherently different, because the type of white space that they’ll occupy is different.
As an example, an API product manager might have customers who are all engineers. That might mean that the product manager needs to be much better at technical skills.
As a different example, a consumer product manager might be serving millions of customers, and therefore needs to be highly quantitative.
Even within the same company, you might see a dazzling variety of product managers, because each product manager is handling a fundamentally different problem space. They’re working with different kinds of customers, different kinds of business stakeholders, and different kinds of development teams.
To truly further under what a product manager does, let's dive into the theory of product management.
The Theory of Product Management
Let’s use a diagram to illustrate a world with no product managers.
In a world with no product managers, we can generalize all people to be in one of three groups: the customer, the business, and the development team.
The customer is someone who is experiencing pain. They’re willing to pay time, money, or both to have their pain addressed.
The business is an organization that is focused on sustainably providing value to shareholders in the long run. It seeks to monetize goods and services so that it can employ people and create wealth for its owners.
These three groups don’t typically get along well on their own.
Customers and businesses regularly face conflict.
Customers would prefer to get goods and services for free. They pressure businesses into providing solutions for their specific pains, which may not be large enough opportunities for the business to survive in the long run.
Businesses prefer that customers buy their existing products at high prices even if it doesn’t solve the customer’s pain, and businesses would love to devote as much attention as possible towards capturing new customers rather than serving existing ones.
Customers and development teams regularly face conflict.
Customers want development teams to build things exactly the way that they spec it. If they want a blue button on the bottom left hand side of a page, they’ll push for the button to be there, even if it breaks existing engineering and design paradigms. Customers push for perceived solutions to their pains, even if those perceived solutions don’t actually address their pain.
On the flip side, development teams want to build cool new things, but these new functionalities may not actually address the needs of the customer. Development teams want to have enough time to thoroughly QA their work, whereas customers push for accelerated timelines.
Development teams and businesses regularly face conflict.
Businesses want development teams to act as feature factories - the more features they can ship, the more money the business can make.
Development teams regularly push back against business timelines because they want to refactor the code for technical health, or they want to redesign the features for visual consistency.
So much conflict! How do all of these conflicts get resolved?
They get resolved through the product.
The product is something that solves the customer’s pain, while enabling the business to be profitable, while being something that the development team is excited to build and can easily maintain. In other words, a great product solves the pains of the customer, the business, and the product development team.
So, what about all of the white space around the product?
That’s the product manager.
What is the Role of a Product Manager?
The role of the product manager is to serve as a multiplier. The role is really two jobs: coach and janitor.
As a coach, you’re empowering stakeholders and teammates to deliver the highest value. You’re defining what problem to solve, for who, why, and when. You drive the product vision and you push your teams towards the north star of your vision.
As a janitor, you’re unblocking teammates. You’re shielding them from blame and pressure, and you tackle high-value work that is low prestige.
For example, product managers write product specs, meeting notes, and test cases. It’s not fun, but it’s critical to document our products so that everyone’s on the same page. Similarly, product managers need to deal with angry customers and with crisis management.
You’ll work with folks of all kinds to create a powerful engine of experimentation, creativity, and improvement. You’re in charge of improving the development team and the business, and you’re in charge of keeping the customer happy.
On top of that, you need to distill quantitative data from historical metrics, qualitative data from user research and customer feedback, market trends, competitive analysis, and more - all so that you can make the highest ROI decision available.
From this distillation of information, it’s a product manager’s responsibility to prioritize products or features that their team should be focusing on as well as convincing their team and upper management to get on board with the vision that they’ve laid out based on their analysis and prioritization. A good product manager must also work with the rest of the team to lay out an actionable plan to execute these proposed ideas.
Once it’s time for the team to build the product, a product manager must ensure that details are taken care of, edge cases are accounted for, and make sure the product is tested and ready to ship on time.
Even when the product is shipped, the job isn’t done. A product manager needs to determine the success of the product by understanding how customers interact with the product. This feedback gives product managers even more context and data for future iterations of the product and enables them to plan ongoing roadmaps.
Product Manager Responsibilities
Below are some of the tactical day-to-day responsibilities that a product manager must execute on.
Stand Up Meetings
If your startup runs an agile development process, you may hold “scrums” where the team gets together and talks about what they worked on yesterday, what they will be working on, and if there are any blockers preventing anyone from doing work.
A good scrum master will be able to guide conversations and make sure no one gets too far into details of any particular task. The goal isn’t necessarily to solve any roadblocks during stand-up meetings but rather help the right team members be notified so that they can work on issues outside of the meeting.
Product managers may need to serve as scrum masters, especially in lean organizations where separate scrum masters may not be available. It’s your job to ensure that your teams run smoothly.
Talking to Customers
Whether in person or through other mediums such as customer support tickets, phone, or video conferences, you should be spending time with your customers to understand that what your team is building is valuable for your customers. Time with customers will also help you plan upcoming features.
Product Backlog Management
You’re responsible for managing the product feature backlog and ensuring that that your team doesn’t have any dead time in between feature development. You need to prioritize which features your team will work on in upcoming sprints.
Product managers are in charge of determining not just the immediate next work items of the product, but also the long-term product strategy and vision. It’s critical to stay in sync with changes in the industry and in the competitive landscape, and it’s crucial that you have a stance on what the future will look like in your space.
You’re responsible not just for the current performance of the product, but also for the future performance of the product in 1 year, 3 years, and 5 years from now. Your product management peers will expect you to have a vision for where you’re taking your product, and they’ll also expect that your vision will work well together with their visions for their products.
You’re responsible for writing comprehensive specs for new features and products. Part of the spec includes business goals, user stories, product requirements, and customer context. You’ll also be responsible for wireframes and user journeys as part of your spec. You'll own the definition for what a good user experience looks like.
On top of that, you’ll also review your specs with the rest of your development team in an iterative fashion. As you get more input from the engineering team, product team, and customers, you’ll continue to refine your spec until you decide it’s ready to be built.
Meetings with Other Teams
You’ll spend a significant chunk of your time in meetings. Depending on the size of the company, you’ll spend time with various cross-functional teams like sales, product marketing, and business development. You’ll also meet with your executive team to keep them up to date with your progress, or to pitch them on your vision for the product and for additional resources. Furthermore, you’ll meet with customers and users to understand their pains and to confirm whether your product is solving their needs.
Why do you need to be in so many meetings? One of the core challenges of human psychology is that the most effective way to transmit information is through meetings. Even if you write solid emails, others may not pay attention to you. Live meetings are unfortunately some of the most powerful ways for you to transmit information and for you to receive information, even if they’re time-consuming.
As a rule of thumb, you’ll be in back-to-back meetings during working hours (e.g. 9 AM to 5 PM), and you’ll need to find time outside of meetings to tackle your individual contributor work such as spec writing, data analysis, and market research. Some product managers like to work in the early mornings, some like to work in the late evenings, and some like to work on weekends.
Data is crucial to making well-informed product decisions so PMs should be able to understand and hopefully pull the data they need to run analyses. SQL and Excel are a must to run basic data analysis on the job. After all, if you don't understand the data, you'll struggle to identify what business value your product is meant to drive.
Product managers are responsible for ensuring that information flows to the right people at the right time. Documentation is a core component of information flow hygiene. Strong product managers are efficient at gathering information from various teams and properly summarizing the most important information to be shared with appropriate stakeholders.
You’re in charge of documenting release dates, release notes, user flows, caveats, meeting notes, and other kinds of critical organizational context.
Critical Skills for Product Managers
Does this sound like a lot of work? It is, and we realize it can be overwhelming.
That said, if you develop the following three core skills, you’ll thrive as a great product manager even while tackling the monumental workload of product management:
- Empathy and communication
- Grit and speed of learning
- Ruthless prioritization
Empathy and communication are necessary because your job is fundamentally focused on filling the white space.
You won’t know what space is most critical to fill unless you fully understand the customer, the business, and the development team. On top of that, you need to serve as mediator for all three groups, which is why communication is critical.
You need both empathy and communication at the same time - one without the other isn’t going to get you anywhere.
If you’re empathetic but you can’t communicate, you won’t be able to share context between the three groups, and that will lead to a breakdown in trust. If you’re communicative but you don’t have empathy, you’ll also destroy trust because you won’t shape the message to target the needs of each group.
Grit and speed of learning are necessary because product management is inherently an infinite space.
You need to have grit because you’re going to face difficult decisions every day, and you’ll face conflict from all three groups all of the time. You need to be convicted in your mission and your passion, and you need to be the spiritual cheerleader and representative for all three groups even when times are tough.
You need to learn quickly because customers, businesses, and development teams are changing all of the time. New industry trends, new competitors, new technologies, and even new hires might completely change the way in which you work.
You need both grit and speed of learning at the same time - one without the other is relatively useless to you. If you only have grit without speed of learning, you’ll be too stubborn and you won’t change your mind fast enough when evidence builds up against you. And if you only have speed of learning without grit, you’ll burn out too quickly and you won’t stick around for the long run.
Ruthless prioritization is necessary because product management is infinite.
You have thousands of decisions to make every day, because product managers are all about decision making. Should you send that message? If so, to who, and when, and how, and with what tone and content? Should you take this customer call? If so, what’s the objective? If not, how will you turn them down tactfully?
If you can’t quickly identify the key factors that will make or break your company, you’ll drown from analysis paralysis, or you’ll be too overwhelmed with inbound work. You have to know when to decline work and when to delegate work - you can’t do it all yourself, so prioritizing your work is crucial.
Types of Product Managers
There are many different flavors of product management, especially since product manager responsibilities depend greatly on the industry, company, business model, and product.
Due to this variability, there is a wide range of day-to-day activities, but ultimately a product manager is still responsible for doing whatever it takes to collaborate with multiple teams.
Here are a handful of factors that differentiate product managers:
- Distribution model: B2C vs. B2B vs. B2B2C
- Funding: External investors vs. bootstrapped
- Platform: Web vs. mobile vs. software vs. hardware
- Regulation: Highly regulated vs. unregulated industries
- Company size: Large vs. medium vs. small companies
- Positioning: Internal (data, platform, API) vs. external
- Customer attributes: Tech-savvy users vs. non-tech savvy users, age, geography
- Lifecycle: Mature product vs. new product
Again, the nature of the role of a product manager comes from the customer, the type of product, and the development team.
Even within the same company, different product managers may have vastly different job descriptions from one another, because the kinds of customers they serve and the kinds of development teams they work with might be totally different.
In a general manner, aspiring product managers can expect to be involved in decisions involving the products' "when", "what", and "how". For this reason, some PMs can be considered the CEO of the product.
That requires a vast spec of knowledge, which includes some technical know-how and a deep understanding of product leadership.
If you are new to product management, we recommend checking out our One Week PM course, a crash course in learning the fundamentals of product management, launching your own product, and landing your first product role!